The View From Here: Social media manipulation

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Volodymyr Kish.

The ubiquitous social media tool called Facebook has done wonders at giving everyone a chance to voice their thoughts and opinions without the restraints and polite constraints that face to face dialogue usually requires. I have often seen this escalate and lead to rants, arguments, heated exchanges, ad hominem attacks and ultimately, to broken friendships. There is something about social media tools like Facebook and Instagram that leads otherwise polite and reserved people to suddenly lose their inhibitions and say things they would not voice in other social scenarios.

What is disturbing is that repressed biases and opinions surface in individuals that we thought we knew and would not have expected to harbour what we may consider as extremist views. We can be suddenly confronted with the fact that they hold opinions and attitudes that may be significantly different or antithetical to our own. This can lead to a moral dilemma where we are forced to decide whether we want to continue to have any kind of relationship with such individuals. Friends and acquaintances that we thought we shared a common ethos with have revealed themselves to be very different than what we thought.

Why has this issue suddenly become so prevalent and pervasive? I think part of the reason can be laid at the feet of our current crop of political leaders. For the past decade or so, populism has become the dominant feature of the political space almost globally, and fueling that trend has been the rise of very antagonistic and polarizing dialogue. Polite and reasoned political debate has given way to mudslinging, character assassination, distortion of facts, outright lies and hatemongering. If the political elite is doing it, then the average Joe figures it’s OK to do so as well. If Don Trump can be a racist, then the local bigot feels that it is alright for him to vent his xenophobia on the Internet and in public.

In this respect, Trump and the Republican party in the U.S. have sunk to new moral lows in encouraging the credulous hoi polloi to awaken and aggressively voice their usually hidden biases, prejudices, hates, resentments and racism. If the President feels free to denigrate the immigrants, the blacks, the Asiatics, the liberals, the democrats, the academics, the scientific community, etc., then it must be OK for everyone else to do so. While it may feel “liberating” for the closet racist to be able to do so now in the open, what they fail to realize is that they are being used as pawns in the first step towards a fascist takeover of the political system. Division and hatemongering are the most prominent and effective tactics in the would-be dictator’s playbook.

We as Ukrainians are not immune to these current tendencies. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t see someone within one of my virtual Ukrainian circles respond to a political “dog whistle” post initiated undoubtedly by some paid troll with a hidden agenda. One common example is a post decrying how the government supposedly lavishes large amounts of money on refugees or foreign aid, while shortchanging our own poor pensioners or veterans. One would think that Canadian Ukrainians, as descendants of refugees, would be immune to this kind of veiled anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment, but I am constantly amazed by how many of my Ukrainian acquaintances voice sympathy with this kind of abhorrent and underhanded psychological manipulation.

Anti-immigration propaganda has become very common in Canada on the Internet, and it is sad and particularly ironic that many Ukrainian Canadians are buying into it. There has been no shortage of politicians decrying how we let in far too many immigrants every year. What most people don’t realize is that our current levels of around 250,000 to 300,000 per year are actually significantly less than most periods in our history. Back in 1912, when Canada had a quarter of its current population, we admitted more than 400,000 immigrants. This country and its economy was built on immigrants, and that strategy is equally applicable today. What is really happening is that a large proportion of today’s immigrants are visible and typically non-Christian minorities, and the Canadian “establishment”, which now includes Ukrainians, is exhibiting a thinly veiled racist nervousness about letting in people that do not look or think like we do.

Another frequent theme I see all the time on Facebook, particularly among Ukrainians, are posts that equate all forms of liberalism and socialism with communism and/or dictatorships. There are undoubtedly some powerful forces that would love to convince people that unfettered, free-enterprise capitalism is the ideal form of economics and politics, and that everything else is but an evil form of communism. One can understand why people who have lived under totalitarian communism might be susceptible to this kind of argument, but it is a reductio ad absurdum point of view. Politics and economics cover a wide spectrum or continuum of beliefs, structures and possible implementations, and reducing a complex issue to a simplistic black and white interpretation is counterproductive to the evolution of a fair and just society.

We need to be very careful in how we react to the material we see posted on the Internet, particularly when it involves political, racial, social or economic themes. We need to be more skeptical, do some research on our own, verify the credibility of sources and not just blindly accept what we see and read. We need to be aware that there are powerful vested interests that are investing a lot of time and money on the internet in an effort to shape our beliefs and opinions. Think for yourself and take the time to educate yourself before jumping on any Internet bandwagon.

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